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24th April 2018

Gender gap in science and technology could last for centuries

On current trends, it could take over 300 years to reach gender parity in science and technology, according to a new study.


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New research reveals that without further interventions, the gender gap for women working in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM) workforce is likely to persist for many generations – particularly in computer science, maths, physics and surgery.

In a study published by the open access journal PLOS Biology, researchers analysed the numbers of male and female authors listed on more than 10 million academic papers, allowing them to calculate the gender gap among researchers, as well as its rate of change for most disciplines of science and medicine.

Dr Luke Holman, from the University of Melbourne, used computational methods to gather data from the citation databases PubMed and arXiv, and then estimated the gender of 36 million authors based on their names. The 15-year dataset covers more than 6,000 academic journals, spans almost all of the STEMM disciplines, and includes authors from over 100 countries.

The data and trends have been made publicly available through an online tool, in order to help researchers, employers and policymakers identify areas of science that need new initiatives and reforms if they are ever to reach gender parity.

Results from the study showed that:

• 87 of the 115 disciplines examined had significantly fewer than 45% women authors, five had significantly more than 55%, and the remaining 23 were within 5% of gender parity.

• Topics such as computer science, physics, mathematics, surgery and chemistry had the fewest women, while health-related disciplines like nursing, midwifery, and palliative care had the most.

• In a striking example, computer science will take 280 years to reach gender parity, based on current trends. Meanwhile, physics only has 13% women in senior positions today, and this gap is predicted to take 258 years to close.

• Junior researchers were more likely to be women, while senior researchers more likely to be men, relative to the overall gender ratio of the discipline in question.

• Prestigious journals have fewer women authors than do standard journals.

• Variation was seen across countries. A larger gender gap exists in Japan, Germany and Switzerland, with a smaller gender gap in some European, African and South American countries.

Study co-author, Dr Cindy Hauser from the University of Melbourne's School of Biosciences, said that highly male-biased disciplines tended to show especially slow improvement in the gender ratio with time: "Of the gender-biased disciplines, almost all are moving towards parity – though some are predicted to take decades or even centuries to reach it."


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Associate Professor Devi Stuart Fox said that they chose to focus on academic publications, as they are currently the primary means of disseminating scientific knowledge and the main measure of research productivity, influencing the career prospects and visibility of women in STEMM: "Author lists of these publications also provided information on the gender ratio of people working in a given field, as well as seniority. In most disciplines, the conventions regarding authorship order mean that first authors are typically junior researchers, while last authors tend to be more senior."

The team note that the underrepresentation of women in senior authorship positions probably has multiple, complex causes, but that several practical measures that could help to close the gender gap have already been identified, and are awaiting implementation.

These could include reforming academic publishing and peer review, ensuring women have equal access to informal professional networks, affording greater recognition of the extra demands outside the workplace that traditionally fall on women when assessing researchers' achievements, ensuring women receive equal resources at work, better access to parental leave and career break provisions, striving for a representative gender ratio of invited speakers at conferences, and affirmative action during hiring.

"The solutions are out there, but it's difficult to bring about change and get people to act on them," said Dr Holman. "We haven't acted on them enough because it's difficult to change the way that people have always done things – and it's maybe not afforded as high a priority as it should be by people in positions of power in the scientific industry and academia."



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